Thomas Atkinson’s connections with the Russian Tsars are well known. His first book, Oriental and Western Siberia (1858), was dedicated to Tsar Alexander II, Emperor of Russia, whose father, Tsar Nicholas I, had given the traveller an enormously important document – a passport that allowed him to wander across Russia and Siberia, to leave and re-enter the country and to call upon local officials for help and provisions. Later, both Tsars had offered the Atkinsons their personal protection in St Petersburg even as Russia and Great Britain were at war in the Crimea between 1853-55.
However, Atkinson’s connection to Queen Victoria is less well known, even though his second book, Travels in the Regions of the Upper and Lower Amoor (1860), was dedicated “by special permission” to Queen Victoria. What is more, letters and books in the Royal Collection at Windsor provide some background to the relationship between Atkinson and his monarch.
The first time we hear about this is in Queen Victoria’s personal diary, where she records a meeting she held with Atkinson in October 1856, only weeks after he had returned from Russia for the first time to deliver his book manuscript to his publishers. Victoria writes:
“A frost, & found it cold, when we walked out with the Children after breakfast. — Service at 11. — After luncheon we saw about 50 very interesting drawings & paintings done by a Mr Atkinson, who has for about 6 years been travelling in Siberia, & Mongolia, which must be most curious. He has seen all the Russian possessions there & all their unknown Forts. He was very kindly treated by the Empr Nicholas, even after the war broke out, being allowed to remain at St. Petersburg, whilst it was going on. He saw the Emperor about 5 or 6 days before he died. — Walked & drove home. — Dining alone.”
However, that was not the end. It seems quite likely that there was a second meeting, although I cannot find a record. However, details are contained in a letter dated 21 December 1857 from Atkinson to a senior member of the Royal Household, Colonel Sir Charles Beaumont Phipps.
This letter makes it clear that the Queen had agreed to allow Atkinson to present a copy of his first book in person at Windsor Castle. She writes an instruction (in red ink) to Phipps on the back of a letter: “It may be presented in person – some day after luncheon next week at Windsor.”
Phipps must then have written to Thomas, who replied to query the arrangements: “When Her Majesty’s pleasure has been expressed will you do me the favour to inform me on which day during the week the audience will be granted? You have mentioned three o’clock as the hour but the day is not named,” Thomas writes.
Even if we do not know whether or not the meeting ever took place, we do know that Atkinson presented a special copy of his book, bound in red leather with gilt tooling, to the Queen, as it remains in the Royal Collection at Windsor.
Emma Stuart, Senior Curator of Books and Manuscripts at the Royal Collection Trust, tells me that the Royal Collection also holds copies of Travels in the Regions of the Upper and Lower Amoor (which was dedicated to Queen Victoria) and Lucy Atkinson’s book, Recollections of Tartar Steppes. In addition, there is a second copy of Oriental and Western Siberia at in the Royal Collection at Sandringham, which was bought by King Edward VII when he was Prince of Wales.